As Roseann Lake perceptively observes, an unintended consequence of China’s one-child policy was that “it forced parents to value their daughters.” Only-child daughters, particularly in urban areas, were “given more resources, opportunities, and liberties than any generation of females before them.” In short, they were treated as sons have historically been treated — pushed tenaciously to succeed, to bring honor and financial resources to the family.
And so they have. China now has a significant cohort of young, well-educated, high-earning professional women who provide substantial financial help to their parents and are the linchpin of China’s economy.
But along with parental pride comes parental shame, or panic. About a third of these women are unmarried and therefore sheng nü, or “leftover women” (the prefix sheng is the same one used for leftover food). Unmarried, they are considered past their shelf life — women are considered virtually unmarriageable as early as 25 in rural areas, in their later 20s in more urban centers.
“In addition to finding it highly offensive that my still young and presumably fertile colleagues … were being referred to as the stuff of doggie bags and garbage disposals,” Lake writes, “I struggled to understand how this was happening in modern China.”
The result of this struggle is Lake’s new book, “Leftover in China,” a fast-paced, fascinating and refreshingly nuanced look at how marriage policies and patterns are at the heart of the cultural disconnect that structures much of the tension between old China and the emerging new China.
The challenges that “leftover” women face, particularly in finding (and rejecting) marriage partners, form the center of this intriguing and revealing book. Lake, who was a television reporter in China for five years, focuses her narrative on the romantic tribulations of several candid and extremely likable young women, augmenting their stories with interviews and solid research.
The book is filled with funny, poignant and infuriating anecdotes about the marriage pressures the “leftovers” face: marriage marts in the parks where grandparents display grandchildren’s “marriage resumes” — including height, weight, skin tone, education and even blood type — on umbrellas lined up in labyrinthine rows; mothers who set up online dating profiles for their daughters, writing embarrassingly sycophantic notes in their daughters’ names to attract men their daughters quickly reject; online videos that teach the art of sajiao, or temper tantrums, “apparently the time-honored way of allowing a Chinese male to feel loved, needed, chivalrous, and just all-around manly.”
But “Leftover in China” is more than just a collection of fascinating anecdotes. Lake contextualizes her work with reference to other Asian countries as well as the United States and carefully grounds her narrative historically (the chapter on the historical and contemporary power of mistresses is exceptionally telling, and I was blown away by the silk reelers of the 1890s, a group of renegade women who rejected marriage — except for “marriages” to dead single men: they even complained about a shortage of eligible dead men).
The result is a sympathetic but clear-eyed critique of “the infinitely textured and complex set of sparring values, obligations, traditions and tensions that define modern China.”
Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World's Next Superpower
By: Roseann Lake.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 271 pages, $26.95.